Friday, August 10, 2007

What you pay for...

I eat out quite a bit. Not because I'm a lazy slob who likes to dine out - I love cooking, you just don't know - but because of an ongoing "issue" with my current living arrangements.

So I read a lot of online reviews, listen to folks talk about places, hear the stories and all in efforts to find interesting and exciting places to dine. And as such, I've realized that most people don't quite understand how dining out works, or how it's structured or really the whole point of going out. Let me go over a few basic rules and guidelines cause it's more difficult than you think, and I'm sure armed with a bit of knowledge you'll swiftly enhance your dining experience.

Level 1 - Fast food: What you're paying for here is throwaway rights. The food is not supposed to be especially well cooked, or even taste all that good. It's fast, it's cheap and you throw away everything when you're finished - the burger wrapper, the plastic fork, the ketchup packets. You're not paying for service either, so don't get snippy with the lady on fries.

Level 2 - Diner food: What you paid for is not a high quality meal, but the right to not have to clean up when you're finished. I find some of my best best meals in diners, so the quality can vary...a lot...but you're not paying for that. At the end of the meal, they come get the plate and you go home and sleep. That's what the money went for.

Level 3 - Chain food: Your national food chains are in business to make money...not make your dietary dreams come true. You're paying for a little flavor, a little taste, but it's on their terms. Don't expect their "Down Home Cajun cooked Chicken" to even come close to the real thing, or that Key Lime Pie to come from anyplace other than a box.

Level 4 - Upscale dining: You're coming out of pocket $75 -$125 for two at these places. You can expect not only good food but decent service. Don't expect them to do it like your mother did, but you can make an honest complaint here. Because this is the level where food is supposed to be good. This is the level most of us aspire to, and how most people think all restaurants should work.

Which is why we're having this discussion. Restaurants operate on the "you're hungry theory" of profit. It's how hungry you are that determines the restaurant you go to. I find it funny when I see folks upset at the food quality, when all they've really paid for is the right to go home full in 20 minutes. There is one other level, but then you're passed through hungry and gone out the other side.

Level 5 - Foodie: If you get to this level...I dined at the legendary Seegars in it's day, so I'm in...then the service is high, people are waiting with drinks, plates flash back and forth, damn you almost want them to leave so you can eat. The flavors are exotic, the cooking a little different and the whole vibe skewed. True you're coming out of pocket here in the hundreds plural, but what you're paying for again is not the food, it's the experience.

And if you go out to eat for the experience...then you weren't really that hungry.

Barkeep...a rosewater and lime martini with a scrooch of pomegranite. And a Bud back.